One of the nominations is for 32-year-old Damien Chazelle as Best Director. It’s his second commercial feature and a box office smash he describes as one he had to make.
“I’d been a movie fan my whole life and a musician a lot of my life. But ironically, musicals – I was one of the people who got a little uncomfortable when people break into song,” Chazelle said.
That all changed for the young director after he saw the daring dance sequences in films like “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“I think there’s something very outlandish about them in a really wonderful, freeing, liberating way that you don’t see as much of in Hollywood anymore. We’re a little more literal now,” Chazelle said.
“La La Land” is a modern romance between a jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling and an actress played by Emma Stone. Chazelle calls it a love letter to the kind of dreams society often mocks.
“You didn’t want the dance numbers to, sort of, be technically perfect,” Mason observed.
“No, I wanted them to be human,” Chazelle said. “There has to be a certain kind of humbleness or humility I mean. … But also a certain kind of grandeur to it as well. Because love makes everything grand.”
“When did you know you wanted to make movies?” Mason asked.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else,” Chazelle said.
When Chazelle was 10 years old, his father was his first cameraman.
“But then I would be very unhappy with the footage that came back ‘cause the camera was never pointed the way it should be. Or, you know, he would improvise. And that was just verboten,” Chazelle said. “So I had to eventually take matters into my own hands. So I knew, OK, I have to learn how to use this camera myself. And so I did that, and then from then on, that was my camera.”
At Harvard, where he studied film, Chazelle’s senior thesis was a musical called “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”
It would be the dress rehearsal for “La La Land,” which he started writing in 2010.
“When you first took ‘La La Land’ to people out in Hollywood, what did they say?” Mason asked.
“Interest was nowhere to be found, to be frank, for quite a while,” Chazelle said.
So Chazelle wrote a screenplay based on his years studying to be a jazz drummer. The film, “Whiplash,” which he also directed, would win three Oscars. And suddenly Hollywood was interested in “La La Land.”
“It took ‘Whiplash’ to open the door,” Chazelle said.
“That’s a pretty big risk for you on your second film to want to make a musical,” Mason said.
“Yes. You’re not wrong,” Chazelle responded.
“A lot of people would have chosen something safer,” Mason said.
“I never really felt there was a choice, you know. ‘La La Land’ was this dream project that I was desperate to make for years – years before ‘Whiplash,’” Chazelle said.
The film’s opening dance number is also its most ambitious. They shut down a highway ramp in Los Angeles for two days to shoot the scene that involved 100 cars and dancers. Chazelle said it took “somewhere between 20 to 30 takes for each piece of the number.”
“Musicals either work or they don’t. There’s not a lot of middle ground,” Mason pointed out.
“Yeah, there’s nothing quite as bad as a bad musical,” Chazelle said.
So he approached the premiere last year in terror.
“Because it was so personal, and also I think, because most of my memory with this movie was hearing the word ‘No – that won’t work. No one wants to see that,’” Chazelle said.
But they have. The film has earned more than $300 million at the box office and tied a record for Oscar nominations – 14 total.
“I was a little surprised,” Chazelle said, chuckling. “It’s a little surreal.”
So will he make another musical?
“Absolutely. Just not anytime soon,” Chazelle said. “Not anytime, you know, in the next couple years.”